There comes a time in every administration when Congress brings the president’s ambitions of sweeping legislative change to a screeching halt. For Bill Clinton, it was the failure of his health reform plan in 1994. For George W. Bush, it was the death of Social Security reform in 2005. For Barack Obama, the Senate failed to act on his cap-and-trade bill in 2010.
Now, with the wreckage of the American Health Care Act barely two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s become clear that the administration’s opening legislative strategy has failed — and that if they want to pass any consequential new laws, they need a course correction.
The original plan: As I wrote last week, GOP leaders hoped to take advantage of Republican control of Congress to ram Obamacare repeal through Congress, using the Senate’s special filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to make sure no Democratic votes would be necessary. They would then follow it up with budget reconciliation again, this time for tax reform — and again without Democrats.
The reality: We’ve learned that winning the support of nearly all Republicans in Congress around a transformative bill is far more difficult than many expected.
Remember, passing something through the House was supposed to be the easy part because Paul Ryan could afford to lose around 20 GOP votes. But even that proved too difficult on health reform because of defections from both hard-line conservatives and pragmatists.
Even if something had gotten through the House, there was much less room for error in the Senate, where a mere three GOP defections are enough to kill even a filibuster-proof bill. That’s a very high bar to meet for anything controversial, as tax reform surely will be.
What are Trump’s options?
Like I mentioned, presidents have often been in this tough situation vis-a-vis Congress. And as the administration decides what to do next, I see basically three options for them.
1) Pivot to a nonlegislative agenda: When presidents lose Congress, they usually shift their strategy toward trying to make their mark via executive action (as Obama did in his second term) or in foreign policy (as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did in their final years).
Trump could well decide that passing hugely controversial new legislation isn’t really worth the bother. If he wanted to rejuvenate his popularity, he could return to his transition strategy of making dramatic announcements about how he’s allegedly saved some American jobs. Perhaps more worryingly, he could also turn his attentions abroad, where the president has a whole lot of power to act on his own, including in ways that get people killed.
Still, executive actions are more likely to be blocked by the courts (as Trump has already found with his travel ban) or rolled back by the next president (as Trump is trying to do with some of Obama’s executive actions). Signing new laws is one of the most reliable ways for a president to leave a durable legacy.
2) Work with Democrats: With Republicans unable to unite, one option for Trump is to try to work with Democrats — which, as an outsider to the GOP, he may have freedom to do.
Jonathan Swan of Axios reports some in Trump’s “inner circle” are musing about working with the Congressional Black Caucus on issues like tax reform and infrastructure. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said this weekend that if Trump is willing to make serious concessions to Democrats, they’d work with him on some issues.
The problems here, of course, are that Trump is already a very unpopular president, that enormous majorities of Democratic voters utterly loathe him, and that Democrats are hoping to ride Trump’s unpopularity to big wins in the 2018 midterm elections. So they have little incentive to work with him in a way that could make him more popular.
3) Go after the filibuster: Trump could also go in the opposite direction, and push for Senate Republicans to ram through a rules change that eliminates the filibuster for legislation — therefore making Democrats completely unnecessary.
Right now there is nowhere near sufficient Republican support in the Senate for this — it’s not even on the table. But if the president starts publicly campaigning, and conservative media outlets start making it a litmus test issue, the politics here could conceivably move.
But, of course, killing the Senate filibuster wouldn’t have helped the AHCA much, since it couldn’t even get out of the House. And the Senate tends to be rather reticent when outsiders tell it to change its rules.
Coming up on the calendar
- Next week — Gorsuch vote: McConnell is planning a Senate vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court before the chamber goes into recess on April 6. Democrats are planning to attempt a filibuster, so the big near-term question is whether at least eight of them will break ranks and vote on cloture to get Gorsuch though. Ominously for liberals hoping to block Gorsuch, though, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) told VTDigger Sunday that he was “not inclined” to filibuster him.
- April — funding the government: Congress needs to pass a government funding bill, or the federal government will shut down on April 29. There, too, Republicans will need to win over at least eight Democratic senators — which would be extremely difficult if their government funding bill contains controversial policy add-ons like the defunding of Planned Parenthood or the funding of Trump’s border wall.
- May — the budget: After that, the GOP is expected to try and pass a budget, for which only a majority in each chamber is necessary. The problem is that Capitol Hill’s reception for Trump’s recently released budget outline has been brutal — even leading Republicans don’t think Trump’s team made an effort to craft something even remotely plausible. “I don't think we'd get 50 votes for it,” a top House Republican told Politico. And even a “plausible” budget would face that same tough challenge of winning over enough hard-line conservatives and pragmatists to pass.
Weirdness of the day: The White House staff’s absurd refusal to admit Trump is golfing when he’s at the golf course
Here’s one of the strangest and dumbest subplots of the Trump administration. The president frequently goes to golf courses on weekends. While there, it sure seems like he’s playing golf, given how he’s dressed and what other attendees have posted on social media.
In my view, it is totally fine that Trump (apparently) plays golf a lot. President Obama liked to golf a lot too. President George W. Bush liked to take trips to his ranch in Texas. Presidents need their R&R time. It’s fine.
Except … the White House staff has a bizarre reluctance to confirm that that’s what he’s actually doing. CNN’s Dan Merica wrote about this odd situation last month, and this weekend again, Trump’s staff claimed that when he went to the Trump golf club in Virginia he was having “meetings”:
Pool was told Trump was in meetings at Trump National this afternoon. This Instagram photo posted from the course says otherwise pic.twitter.com/WMudqofGmO— Josh Billinson (@jbillinson) March 25, 2017
The obvious motivation here is that Trump’s behavior is inconsistent with his own past (dumb) criticism of President Obama for golfing too much. "I'm going to be working for you, I'm not going to have time to go play golf," he claimed on the campaign trail in 2016.
Can you believe that,with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf.Worse than Carter— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2014
Other close allies of Trump have been similarly hypocritical:
Wish I could be on the golf course but have to work - must be nice to be President— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 29, 2012
Trump and president obsma both golf but trump doesn't charge the taxpayers $920,000 for a golf weekend in florida.— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) March 8, 2013
There are obviously many more important issues involving this administration than the president’s golfing habits. But it’s a bizarre sideshow that once again shows this White House staff’s inability to admit seemingly obvious truths if they fear it would make the Trump look bad.